Reason #82 That Cities Are Great: They Can Turn Rising Incomes Into Skyrocketing Academic Growth

The connection between poverty and academic achievement is the topic du jour for education researchers, but thus far there’s been a dearth of work examining how this connection might vary under different ecological circumstances. For example, do the academic consequences of an increase in family income differ between cities, suburbs, and rural areas?

A new paper from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the RAND Corporation provides an initial answer. Using data from a sample of 6,600 nationally representative children born in 2001, they found that income increases for low-income families lead to more academic gains when the family lives in a large urban area.

Comparisons of income–achievement associations among the lowest income families across urbanicity groups in the combined model (see Table 3) show that income had significantly smaller links to academic skills in rural, suburban, and small urban areas when compared with large urban areas. To give examples in terms of representative families falling along the income distribution, a $10,000 income increase for low-income families (i.e., those earning, for example, $20,000 per year) was related to a 0.05 standard deviation increase in achievement in rural settings and 0.07–0.09 standard deviation increases in achievement in suburbs and small urban areas. In contrast, for low-income children living in large city cores, a $10,000 increase in income was associated with 0.15–0.16 standard deviation increases in achievement. This relationship was significantly larger than the relationships in rural areas and suburbs (trend for math). The association between income and reading was also smaller in small urban areas compared with large inner cities at a trend level.

All of this is fairly intuitive. When you live in a city it’s easier to use additional income to get access to a better school, hire a tutor, or buy better materials. Thus, in a city each dollar can “purchase” more achievement.

On the other hand, it is possible to read the findings as less favorable to cities:

In sampling children living across the urban–rural continuum, results suggest that economic disparities in achievement may be exacerbated in large urban areas. For families at the lower end of the income distribution, the relationship between income and early academic skills is at least 3 times stronger in large cities in comparison with rural areas.

In other words, the strong relationship in cities between income and achievement means that economic inequality leads to relatively  high levels of educational inequality. This is probably a case of cities providing the non-poor with opportunity to take advantage of their income rather than an unequal limiting of educational opportunities for the poor, but lately any kind of inequality is seen as a boogeyman.

Inequality aside, the broader lesson is that it’s important for cities to increase the supply of affordable housing so that the poor can remain in cities even in the face of gentrification. (Matthew Yglesias pointed this out earlier today). Being able to stay in an urban environment allows the poor to take advantage of what cities can offer, and this includes an environment where increases in income lead to large gains in academic achievement.

Miller, P., Votruba-Drzal, E., & Setodji. C.M. (2012). Family Income and Early Achievement Across the Urban–Rural Continuum Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0030244

One Response to Reason #82 That Cities Are Great: They Can Turn Rising Incomes Into Skyrocketing Academic Growth

  1. Staffan says:

    It’s a bit hard to evaluate this study since you’d have to know how they measure achievment and how much a standard deviation is. If this was normally distributed like general intelligence the difference between the urban and rural kid would amount to just 1.6 points. And that’s on a massive income increase of 50 percent.

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